Hands down my favorite part of Death Valley National Park, the Badwater Basin Salt Flat is a must-see for anyone visiting the park. Officially the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level, it was once considered to be the lowest elevation in the entire Western Hemisphere. It is now second only to Laguna del Carbón in Argentina. Once home to Lake Manly, a large, ancient lake that evaporated well over 10,000 years ago, the salt flats currently cover nearly 200 square miles (518 square km). Badwater Basin itself is 7.5 miles in length and 5 miles in width.
Legend goes that the basin got its name when a mule led to drink from the nearby spring refused, leading to the 17th-century explorers deeming the area and water “bad”. In reality, it was most likely due to the water being extremely salty, as the flats are composed of mainly sodium chloride, plus calcite, gypsum, and borax. This spring is called Badwater Pool and is located right at the front, next to the parking lot, by a boardwalk with informative signs. There’s also a permanent, porty-potty style restroom located at this stop.
While Badwater Pool and the boardwalk are easily accessible from the parking lot, to get a good view of the salt polygons, you’ll need to take an easy, 2-mile (roundtrip) walk out onto the salt flat. While it can be uneven terrain in some parts, my 6-year-old was able to easily do it. I highly suggest making the trip out onto the salt flat and experiencing the amazing hexagonal shapes for yourself. It makes you feel like you’ve been transported to a distant Martian planet. We saw no restrictions on how far you could walk out onto the salt flat; however, most people walked out to about 50 feet.
It took us approximately 1 hour for the 2-mile, there-and-back hike, plus hanging out for about 15 minutes on the actual salt flat, just taking in the bizarre and alien landscape and snapping our pics 📸.
Warning: Badwater Basin salt flat is completely exposed to the sun, and it can get blistering in Death Valley. We visited in late April, and it was 95°. Even on cooler days, you are directly under the sun for a 2-mile trek onto blaring white salt, so best to bring water, wear a hat, and put on lots of sunscreen! Especially during the summer months, when temperatures in Death Valley regularly get up between 110° to 120°+. Also, no pets allowed!
Overall, in my opinion, Badwater Basin Salt Flat should be at the very top of anyone’s Death Valley National Park must-see list. It’s a beautiful, unique, bizarre, otherworldly, mesmerizing, and rather calming place, and one that isn’t found in many other places in the world. Not to forget that it’s the lowest point of the entire continent of North America. If you ever make it to the hottest place ever recorded on earth, you must check out one of the coolest places on earth as well!